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The "Deep History" of "Extinction Events"

For Sunday November 13, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Judges 4:1–7 or Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18

Psalm 123 or Psalm 90:1–12

1 Thessalonians 5:1–11

Matthew 25:14–30

           Next week believers will mark the end of the liturgical year. Meanwhile, this Sunday we contemplate the end of the entire cosmos. For both the liturgical year and the end of history, though, the "end" is not the end, but the advent of a new beginning. In God's economy all that is past will enjoy a future, and everything that he's created he will redeem.

           The end of the cosmos is a scientific certitude (see below). It's also a central tenet of Christian confession. Every Sunday in church we "proclaim the mystery of faith" that "Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again." Ironically, for all the "conflict" between science and religion, whether real or imagined, they agree on this point: cosmic life has a definitive end.

Julian Barnes.
Julian Barnes.

           Our liturgical confessions express themes that are embedded in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And even apart from such confessions, most thoughtful people wonder what will happen when they die. We wonder about what came "before" the Big Bang, and what will happen "after" the Cosmic Crunch. The best of our writers, poets, film makers and artists have given eloquent expressions to these deeply human longings.

           To take just one example, in his new magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution (2011), sociologist Robert Bellah locates the origins of religion in human evolution. He starts with the Big Bang, then proceeds through the Axial Age with the simultaneous emergence of the great civilizations of Israel, Greece, China and India. He then concludes with reflections on our cosmic end.

           The world has experienced five "extinction events," says Bellah, that destroyed at least half of all animal species. “As some of us know, and all of us should know, we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction event at this very moment” in which “we may well blow each other up with atomic weapons before we wipe out all species of life, including our own, by more gradual means.” Bellah calls this “deep history.”1

          Psalm 90 reminds us that we needn't wait millions of years for the next extinction event. He meditates upon his own personal end. Our "length of days" is barely seventy years before "they quickly pass and we fly away" like dust. After barely a blink in the cosmic scale of time, we die, and then face either annihilation and absolute nothingness or "magic power" of some sort.

           In his book Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), the atheist Julian Barnes (b. 1946) says that he's never had any faith to lose. But the certainty of total extinction, both personal and cosmic, and the terror which absolute annihilation provokes in him, causes Barnes to admit in the first sentence of his book that while he doesn't believe in God, he misses Him.

           The strictly secular-materialist option is simple enough. When your heart and brain cease to function, your self ceases to exist. But in this view the "self" is nothing more than random neural events. There's no ghost in the machine to begin with, so in fact there's no "self" that ceases to exist. In post-modern parlance, personal identity is a social construction.

Moai statues on Easter Island.
Moai statues on Easter Island.

           But Barnes has nagging suspicions about this neat and clean scientific scenario. Even if they are hard to define or describe, a common sense outlook is that intelligence, aesthetic imagination, our moral impulse, consciousness, love, gratitude, guilt, regret, and the longing for immortality — all of these seem to point beyond themselves. They have the ring of truth that makes them hard to define by mere biology.

           And so Barnes wonders, given his genuine lack of religious faith, is it proper for him to seek and to assign any meaning to his personal story? Does his life enjoy a genuine narrative? Or is it only a random sequence of events that ends with total extinction, such that any and all meaning-making is pure "confabulation?" One thing you can be sure of, Barnes reminds us — in the end, it doesn't matter what you think. The divine reality, or lack thereof, is what it is, and so "the notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque."

           Archaeological ruins like the huge and haunting moai statues on Easter Island in the South Pacific remind us that entire cultures have collapsed. Environmental experts like Jared Diamond (Collapse, 2005) speak of civilizational or cultural death. His twenty case studies show how some of history's most advanced civilizations have vanished. Think about it: can you even fathom what New York City might look like a mere thousand years from now? Civilizational end has numerous precedents.

           The end of the earth is a done deal; it will just take a while. My friend and solar physicist Charles says that in about 5 billion years the sun will expand into a red giant 10,000,000 times its present volume, at which time it will incinerate and eventually swallow the Earth. If the sun is about 4.6 billion years old, as many scientists estimate, we're already about half way to the end of the earth. "It is as sure as can be," writes the particle physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, "that humanity, and all forms of carbon-based life, will prove a transient episode in the history of the cosmos." Yes, these are big numbers, but they are finite numbers.

           The end of the earth is cosmically insignificant compared to the end of the universe. Physicists are divided about the future of the entire cosmos, but equally bleak. If the expansion of the Big Bang continues to propel everything outward, our galaxies will fly apart forever, although individual galaxies will collapse into black holes. But if the forces of gravity prevail, the expanding universe will eventually reverse its expansion and collapse into a Big Crunch.           

           These are our "ends" — personal, civilizational, global and cosmic. But then what? What comes after the end?

Spiral Galaxy.
Spiral Galaxy.

           No one knows, or even can know. Christians propose a fifth alternative. Christian "eschatology" (from the Greek eschaton, last things) believes that humanity's earthly end is not the ultimate end. The God who created the world will consummate its redemption. The readings this week remind us that what began in the Garden of Eden will end in the City of Jerusalem.

           In just five pages Zephaniah refers to “the great day of the Lord” nineteen times. To the believers in Thessalonika Paul wrote that because we trust God for the final future, we need not fret about loved ones who've died, like those "who have no hope." Jesus's parable of the "talents" points us away from theological speculation and toward personal stewardship, from eschatology to ethics, if you will. My personal end will come with a provocative question: what did I do with my life?

           And so following the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and Paul, Christians have confessed this "blessed hope" (Titus 2:13) down through the centuries. In the small Presbyterian church where I grew up, every Sunday we confessed the Apostles' Creed (third or fourth century), one line of which reads, "from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." We'd recite the Nicene Creed (325) that Jesus shall "come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." In the Lord's Prayer we prayed for God's kingdom to come "on earth as it is in heaven."

           How will this "deep history" happen? I have no idea. I like CS Lewis's analogy of actors in a real life drama. We don't know everything about the play, whether we're in the first or last act, or even which characters play the minor and major roles. In our ignorance, we have no idea when the end of the play ought to come. But the plot will find fulfillment, even if our limited understanding right now obscures it. Perhaps the Author will fill us in after it's over, but for now, says Lewis, "playing it well is what matters infinitely."

For further reflection:

William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

Second Coming (1921)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

[1] Alan Wolfe, "The Origins of Religion, Beginning with the Big Bang," New York Times, September 30, 2011.

Image credits: (1) The Telegraph; (2); and (3)

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